Coming to Grips with Taliban’s Comeback

August 23, 2021

On February 19, 2021, in his first address to the global audience at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference President Biden said, “I speak today as President of the United States at the very start of my administration, and I’m sending a clear message to the world: America is back.  The transatlantic alliance is back.  And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together.” Since then, the slogan, “America is back” coined Mr. Biden’s desire to reassert global leadership.

On July 8, President Biden announced the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan.

Then came the “faster than expected” Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Unfortunately for Mr. Biden, the chaos and shock triggered by the evacuations overshadowed the rational of his decision to withdraw. Thus, on August 16, a defiant President Biden told the world that he squarely stands behind his decision. He said, “So I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghans — Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?   How many more lives — American lives — is it worth?  How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?”

He blamed Afghan leaders for their endless feuds. He blamed the Afghan military. He said, “The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated…  Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country.  The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight… We gave them every chance to determine their own future.  What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

He sounded defiant. But he must have been deeply frustrated by the chaotic last phase of the withdrawal seeing that this will haunt his presidency in the years to come. To the disappointment of many, he had no words of sympathy regarding Afghan daughters and sons. Over the past two decades nearly 200,000 Afghans also lost their lives, among them nearly 50,000 civilians some of whom died either in crossfire or under friendly fire.[i] For Afghans, America’s longest war was only a chapter of their long history of suffering.

He stressed that the US went to Afghanistan with clear goals, to get those responsible for 9/11. He added that the mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building; never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.

So, one may ask, what then was the justification for follow-up military interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya? Was there any threat of a terrorist attack against the US from these countries? The invasion of Iraq, also supported by Mr. Biden, was undertaken under false premises. The interventions in Libya and Syria were neither about terrorist threats nor nation building, but regime change. As a political leader Mr. Biden can be held accountable neither for these interventions nor the failures of the American military and intelligence establishment and the ensuing disaster, but unfortunately for him, despite being in office for only seven months, he is the one now to take the blame and shoulder the formidable task of restoring international confidence in the White House.

In the weeks and months ahead, international attention will focus on the long-term implications of the withdrawal for American foreign and security policy and the impact of the Taliban victory on the region, particularly on like-minded groups. Some analysts are already saying that the Taliban victory is a huge propaganda boost for Islamist terrorism worldwide.[ii]

This was how John Hudson and Missy Ryan of the Washington Post started off their article titled “Withdrawal from Afghanistan forces allies and adversaries to reconsider America’s global role”, last Wednesday:

“President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has triggered a globe-spanning rethink of America’s role in the world, as European allies discuss their need to play a bigger part in security matters and Russia and China consider how to promote their interests in a Taliban-led Afghanistan.”[iii]

There is no question that the US withdrawal/Taliban victory and the chaotic evacuations from Kabul would reflect negatively on America’s global image. The long-term impact of the withdrawal would depend on Washington’s willingness to take a fresh look at its post-war foreign and security policy, the cost-effectiveness its military interventions, and come to terms with its mistakes. All Mr. Biden can do  at this stage would be the launching such a process if he is to avoid the Afghanistan withdrawal from becoming the defining legacy of his presidency. The rest would require years to bear fruit.

In his 2016 “Obama Doctrine” interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, President Obama had said “… There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions…[iv]

Would the withdrawal from Afghanistan mean that this playbook is shelved, not to be taken down unless America is directly threatened? Would there be a new playbook with some added chapters?

Global leadership does not rest exclusively on economic and military power and alliances. Countries with such claims must also enjoy moral authority. Inconsistency between public discourse on democracy and actual policy does  not go unnoticed. Today’s reality is that neither the US nor the  EU enjoy enough moral authority to assert global leadership.

So, if President Biden’s is determined to persevere in his claim to global leadership, he must support it with moral authority. And this can only be accomplished by restoring faith in American democracy,  prioritizing multilateralism, and above all, giving proof of America’s peace-making capacity.

Last week President Biden said, “And our true strategic competitors — China and Russia — would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.”

Moscow and Peking were no doubt delighted to see the US get bogged down in Afghanistan for two decades, but the alternative should not be Washington enjoying the impact of the Taliban victory and its negative regional repercussions for these two strategic competitors. Because, as President Biden rightly pointed out, the terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan: al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Nusra in Syria, ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia.  These threats require call for global cooperation.

Mr. Biden says that human rights must be the center of US foreign policy, not the periphery. This is only to be welcomed. But focusing on human rights requires a fair and comprehensive approach going beyond selective criticism of Russia, China, and Belarus. Such criticism must extend to others defying democratic rule and human rights.

The success of any US foreign and security policy review under President Biden will be inextricably linked  to the evolution of US domestic politics. Trumpism is still very much alive and Washington’s European allies remain worried by the prospect of his return to power or another Trump coming to the White House. Besides, those very allies are also in disarray experiencing leadership problems. They are shocked by the chaotic withdrawal and worry about new waves of refugees which is their principal Middle East concern regardless of what is said publicly on regional issues.

EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the  developments in Afghanistan “a catastrophe”.  Former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said President Biden had to implement a half-baked deal that Mr. Trump had made with the Taliban which  has gone terribly wrong. “The victims are all those Afghan women, girls and men who are now trying to get to the airport and NATO is going through the worst time of its existence,” he added.

Last week, President Biden called the evacuation effort for Americans and vulnerable Afghans “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.” The word “airlift” in such a context only brings to mind the 1948 airlift to Berlin, but that was an operation in the other direction. 

Also last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, addressing the global picture in “must read” comments to the media said, “… the world is changing. The West can no longer address all issues of international life on its own, as it did for 500 years, when it dominated militarily and economically and geographically and culturally, imposing its values on everyone… Forming a multipolar world will take time…”[v]

In brief, the West needs to put the home front in order on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for the Islamic countries’ reaction to the Taliban’s comeback, although some must be delighted for a variety of reasons, openly embracing the Taliban is a tough choice. A diametrically opposite option could be expressing disapproval for the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. But considering that Middle East leaders were not at ease even in condemning ISIS for misrepresenting Islam, this too is a tough choice. It would frustrate their own Taliban. Thus, some are silent while others are trying to build bridges to the Taliban on the pretext of helping the people of Afghanistan.

Reportedly, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, without specifically mentioning the group, said that Afghanistan has broken the shackles of slavery. Hopefully, the Taliban victory would not stir up like-minded groups in Pakistan as this would be tantamount to opening the gates of hell in Asia.

As for Turkey, there are two crucial issues:

First, Turkey had agreed to President Biden’s proposal to secure Kabul airport after the withdrawal. It seems that the Turkish government is determined to remain there even after the 5,000 strong American task force departs Kabul. So, the question is who is going to be our interlocutor now that the situation has dramatically changed?

Second, last Thursday President Erdogan urged European countries to take responsibility for migrants coming from Afghanistan, adding Turkey had no intention of becoming “Europe’s migrant storage unit”. The sad reality is the stage of intentions are far behind us and according to the UNHCR Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world.[vi] In other words, we are already world’s migrant storage unit. We are building walls, but the gates are open. The question is how fast our open-door policy and the way we are governed would transform Turkey’s national identity.

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[i] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/aug/17/there-was-never-a-good-time-was-bidens-afghanistan-speech-fair-or-accurate

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/17/world/asia/taliban-afghanistan-al-qaeda.html

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/withdrawal-from-afghanistan-forces-allies-and-adversaries-to-reconsider-americas-global-role/2021/08/17/2808ddbc-ff84-11eb-825d-01701f9ded64_story.html

[iv] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/

[v]https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4841079

[vi] https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/

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